Winds of Change Blow Through Armenian Energy Sector

By Gegham Vardanian

YEREVAN, Armenia, December 19, 2005 (ENS) - A new wind power plant in northern Armenia marks the country’s intent to develop renewable energy sources, but it will be a long time before it offers a real alternative to nuclear power.

The country’s heavy reliance on nuclear power from the Metsamor power station is focusing minds on need for alternative energy. The controversial power station reopened in 1995 after closing because of the devastating earthquake that hit Armenia in 1988.

The nuclear plant generates 40 percent of the Armenia's electricity, with much of the rest coming from hydroelectric schemes, but its operational life is not expected to extend for more than 15 years. European governments are putting strong pressure on Armenia to speed up its planned closure.

The new wind plant, in a mountainous area known as the Pushkin Pass more than 2,000 meters above sea level, was unveiled on December 6. It consists of four wind turbines with a combined output of 10.4 MW.

The plant was built thanks to a US3.5 million grant provided by Armenia’s southern neighbor and close economic partner, Iran. Iranian energy minister Parviz Fattah, who participated in the opening ceremonies, said that his country is ready to provide further help to Armenia in developing alternative energy sources.

Pushkin Pass

Windy Pushkin Pass is the location of Armenia's first wind power generating station. (Photo courtesy Wild Russia)
"Iran wants to deepen relations with Armenia in the field of alternative energy, and the grant that was given for the wind plant is part of this policy," Tatul Manaserian, an economist who sits in the Armenian parliament, told IWPR. “Armenia is a good market and a good route for reaching CIS countries.”

Iran is Armenia's second largest partner in the energy sector, after Russia. Iran is building a gas pipeline jointly with Armenia and working to modernize the Hrazdan thermal power plant.

Nikolai Grigorian, vice chairman of the regulatory commission for public services in Armenia, said, "Alternative energy is one of the basic strategic priorities for us. We should develop our own energy resources - water, wind, sun - in order to minimize our dependence on imported energy resources - gas and nuclear fuel - as much as possible.”

The capacity of the new wind plant is fairly modest. The turbines will provide only enough energy to supply the nearby town of Stepanavan with a population of 20,000 people. Armenia’s electricity consumption is six billion kilowatt hours per year, while the new wind plant will produce only five million kW/h per year.

Grigorian’s regulatory commission for the public sector in Armenia has set a price of US$.07 per kW/h as the rate at which the grid buys electricity from the wind farm. The price is intended to support the development of wind energy, but will make it costlier than other options.

"This is the most expensive energy in Armenia,” explained Grigorian. “Thermal energy costs a little more than three cents and the price of the energy generated by hydroelectric plants is 4.5 cents."

The wind plant is being managed by the state-owned High Voltage Electricity Network company, which is also the Armenian partner in the Iran-Armenia gas pipeline project.

"This is an additional source of funding for us, and we plan to spend all the money that we receive from it on constructing the Armenian section of the Iran-Armenia gas pipeline," said Sahak Abrahamian, director of the High Voltage Electricity Network company.

"The state guarantees that the electrical grid will buy the wind energy and the prices will be valid for 15 years," said Energy Minister Armen Movsesian. “By doing this, we are creating conditions for the development of alternative energy sources and are trying to attract private investment.”

The minister said he hopes that the number of wind turbines installed at the Pushkin Pass will increase as time passes and the high winds here will enable capacity to increase as well.

The closest village to the site, Gargar is two or three kilometers away from the wind turbines and they can be seen from there. Gargar administration head Karen Zalinian said he welcomes the new plant. "Although we are not [yet] getting electricity, life has revived here over these two years of building operations," he said. "Iranian and Armenian builders have often come here. They are saying that there will be more construction in the future."

Karine Danielian, head of the public organization For Sustainable Development, said the negative impacts of the plant - changing the landscape and affecting birds - are outweighed by its positive aspects.

Metsamor

Metsamor nuclear power plant provides 40 percent of Armenia's electricity. (Photo credit unknown)
"We hear there are plans to build a new nuclear power plant in Armenia,” she said. “As an environmentalist, I cannot agree with that, because there’s a real threat - we live in a seismic zone. They say God has helped us so far, but I don’t know how long that will last."

The Armenian atomic power plant in Metsamor generates on average two billion kWh of electricity per year. SolarEn, a company that has five years of experience in the field of alternative energy, has helped make a chart of what wind energy can supply to replace nuclear power.

"If Armenia uses all its potential for wind energy and starts building similar plants throughout its territory, it will be able to generate annual one billion kWh of electric power,” said Artur Lalayan, head of marketing for SolarEn. “That is half of the energy generated by the nuclear plant."

Another source of electric power are small hydroelectric power plants, of which Armenia currently has 32. Lalayan calculates that such schemes could generate up to 400 million kW/h. "Using wind and water energy alone, we can make up for three quarters of nuclear power, the rest can be received from solar energy," he said.

Lalayan said that his company had installed a number of pilot solar units. He conceded that solar energy is currently expensive but said he was convinced that it is the future. "Solar energy is unlimited. There is so much solar energy in Armenia that it could be sufficient for the entire planet. This is the future of power engineering, and those who invest in this field earlier will win more than others will later."

{Published in cooperation with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.}